Archive for November, 2009

Stop all the clocks

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2009 by cockroach1

The other day my watch stopped. If it was up to me I wouldn´t wear one, and free myself from the daily tyranny of clock-watching, but as an English teacher one must be punctual, so I took a stroll across the plaza on the hunch that I had seen an old watch-repair shop on Calle Argumosa where I could get the battery changed. And I was right: tucked next to Ali´s bar was a premises with a faded sign and a tattered awning that was once blue and yellow. I stepped through the entrance and into one of the smallest shops I have ever seen. I have been in bigger elevators. Imagine four telephone boxes knocked together into one and you get the idea.

The air was thick with smoke, coiling up from a half-smoked cigarette in an overflowing ashtray on the counter. Tucked in the corner was the owner, an elderly gentleman wearing an antiquated eye-piece which made him look like a minor character in a Ridley Scott sci-fi film. Shrivelled but benign, with wisps of white hair, yellowed fingertips and a grey smoker´s complexion, he was illuminated in a pool of light from an ancient angle-poise lamp. He put aside the watch he was fixing and set about dismantling mine to replace the battery. I glanced around the shop while I waited.

It was a kind of nightmarish vision of time ticking away while he worked. Among the collection of old clocks there were ghastly carriage- clocks that you might once have been given on your retirement, at least five grandfather clocks, two cuckoo clocks, and a dusty glass case full of defunct time-pieces like a watch graveyard. Tick… tick… tick….. all out of synch, all of them caked in dust and running at their own particular rhythm, competing with each other, the sound broken only by the occasional mournful chiming of one of the grandfather clocks. I doubt the shop had been decorated since its inauguration which looked to be some time in the fifties or sixties. The ceiling flaked with damp, there was a stained corduroy board at the back of him and where there was paint it flaked and peeled. He had a geriatric till and one of the prototype credit-card machines that remind me of the instruments used back in the days when shoe-shops measured childrens´feet for fitting.

As I waited a fearsome-looking woman bustled into the shop and, squeezing next to me, lent over the counter to ask him

´Have you finished mine yet?´

´Not yet, I´m afraid.´ he replied calmly, taking a drag on his cigarette, meticulously replacing it in the ashtray, then worrying away at my watch with a miniature screw-driver. ´I´ve been rushed off my feet all day.´

I was in no hurry so I suggested he finish the lady´s order while I waited.  Of course, I got no thank you from her, more fool me, just an evil look and a tightening of the folded arms across the chest. But I was happy for her to be served first while I waited, soaking in the weirdness of the shop and its owner. I left a little later, five euros poorer but with a functioning watch. As I left he methodically returned to the previous task, adjusting his magnifying eye-piece and lighting up another fag.

How can I explain how happy it makes me to find surviving pockets of old Spain in this age where our purchasing habits are run by a virtual police-state of supermarkets,  global corporations and health and safety regulations? These little gems are dotted around the city still, and if you look hard enough you will find them. Like the shop near Atocha that sells only screws. Any and every type of screw you can imagine and nothing else. Luckily for us, gone are the days when you had to wait in the bank queue until the teller had finished his or her cigarette and phone call, only to turn a baleful eye on you, but it still makes me disproportionately happy to think of this wizened old man smoking himself stupid in his tatty little shop and raking in the money (´rushed off his feet´). Time functions in mysterious ways in Lavapies- on the one hand it leaps forward into multiculturalism with barely a moment to catch its breath, and on the other hand in these hidden, dusty corners of the city it decides to stand perfectly still for forty or fifty years. And that is the infuriating and fascinating dichotomy of Spain- you´ll never get your internet connection repaired on time, a straight answer from a bank, or even eye contact while buying a new shirt, but you do get the Old clinging fiercely to the New, rising to the surface like a trapped air bubble. And if there is a gaping hole which could be (but isn´t) filled by Northern European efficiency, in my opinion the tenacity of everything that is old and traditional is ample compensation.


Lavapies (4) Floor gymnastics with truncheon (or ‘I predict a riot’)

Posted in lavapies olympics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2009 by cockroach1

Last Summer there was an eye-catching piece of street graffiti that sprang up in the neighbourhood. A cleverly painted silhouette falling like an exact shadow from one of those iron bollards that line the main streets and can catch you unawares right in the groin if you’re not careful. The shadow was that of a policeman with a semi-erect truncheon. A discreet and amusing reminder of the presence that hovers over us daily.

Recently local government inaugurated a project to send mounted police to patrol Lavapies. During a vacuous news report on a local television station, where the female reporter dashed around under the horses and officer’s feet, mostly asking dumb questions about poo, elderly locals expressed approval at the scheme, the police stated that they could better observe the goings-on from up there, and drivers expressed irritation at being stuck behind the horses on narrow streets. The most enthusiastic seem to be the small children who play with their families in the playground in the plaza – several times I have seen a group of toddlers daring each other to approach the nonchalant horses in small groups, only to return to their mothers squealing with mock fear and delight when one of them shifts a foot or twitches a tail at them. These are not the only modes of transport for today’s copper on the beat, however. There are also police on motorbikes, who can be seen hanging around posing like extras from C.H.I.P.s, smoking fags and gossiping while adjusting their balls. Also there are many patrol cars sliding through the streets like silent sharks on the hunt for prey. Regularly they also pull up in batches of three or four cars, so all the officers can stop and have a chat. And police on foot. In fact, let’s face it, Lavapies is a veritable constables tea-party. What are they all doing here, then? Why so many of them? And what are their relations with my neighbours, the locals?

I, of course, have never had a brush with the Spanish police so have no opinion based on experience. I say ‘of course’ not because I am an upright and law-abiding citizen, but because my profile makes me appear to be one. I am a white, blond woman, and not a particularly young one. Therefore, according to airport security guards, police, doormen etc, I am no threat at all. So I am indifferent to their presence in my neighbourhood- they never ever bother me. On the other hand, if you are African, Arab, Indian, or in any way ‘foreign’ (especially ‘foreign’ and ‘dark’) you are likely to be stopped on sight and asked for your papers. There are many illegal immigrants here who barely leave the house for fear of being stopped and deported. African residents and street hawkers demonstrated twice recently against alleged racism and police raids; it subsequently emerged that police in the capital had been given weekly quotas for arresting illegal immigrants.

And there is a darker side to police relations with the locals, fuelled by mutual antipathy and antagonism. Sometime last year there was actually a full-scale riot just up the hill on the border of the neighbourhood, in Plaza Tirso de Molina. The origin of the riot was the choice of the plaza by a group of far right protesters who had organised a rally here. It was considered as provocation by their anti-fascist counter-parts, as it is the site of Nationalist raids on Republicans during the Civil War, so they retaliated by organising disturbances. The police responded in typical heavy-handed fashion, and chaos erupted. Garbage containers were overturned and burnt, cars smashed up, stones, bricks and other blunt objects thrown at police, who retaliated by firing rubber balls back and smoke canisters. On the retreat, rioters damaged urban furniture, shop-fronts, banks and cashpoints. I knew nothing of the riots until I tried to withdraw money the next day and walking from cashpoint to cashpoint, discovered all of them had smashed-in screens. When I was told about the rioting I thought it was a joke, but this was no joke. It was a real riot.

That explains why this sport is one of the entries for the Lavapies Olympics. I must confess I have never, ever seen police batter anyone with a truncheon in full daylight on the mean streets of Lavapies, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. If I wasn’t white and a blond female, with a passport, blue eyes and big knockers, (thus protecting me from racism of one sort, but exposing me to sexism of another sort) I might feel more intimidated. I am not afraid of the police, as I am sure most of my illegal neighbours are. A policeman is more likely to flirt with me than ask me for my papers. I am not a congenital cop-hater either. However, it would really, really amuse me if Banksy could come over here and paint this mural on one of our walls. Now that would get a reaction and amuse the locals no end.

Lavapies Olympics (3) Long Distance gobbing

Posted in lavapies olympics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by cockroach1

olympics10Not so long ago I was walking up from Tirso de Molina toward Sol and as I passed a doorway a huge blob of gob flew out into the street at about thigh-level, narrowly missing me, followed by the spitter himself. Now, I am not one to cause a scene but in this case I made my feelings perfectly clear.

‘Hey! Do you mind??! That could have hit me! Look where you’re spitting, for God’s sake. In fact, even better- don’t do it, it’s disgusting.’ He was suitably bashful and apologetic, and hopefully will think next time before launching a pavement oyster. Unfortunately you would have to make it a full time job remonstrating with all those who clear their noses and throats in the streets of Lavapies. Like China, the streets often ring with the charming sounds of hawking and gobbing. But even China tried to clear up its act a few years ago during the SARS crisis, as the realistation finally dawned that it isn’t the most hygeinic of practices, and can contribute to the spread of diseases like Atypical Pneumonia, (which is more severe than common or garden Pneuomonia and doesn’t respond to antibiotics), Tuberculosis and other contagious respitatory illnesses. As we are currently at risk from another apparently deadly virus, this time originating from pigs, you’d think people might think twice before depositing their phlegm on the streets for us all to share, but no, the practice continues here.

Culturally it’s something we Brits have not done for years- centuries even, apart from a brief return to fashion during the punk era when it was part of the punk ritual to spit on live bands. While it was a common practice in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, by the early 1700s it had become a habit best concealed publicly, and by the late 1800s it was seen as vulgar, especially in mixed company. The Nineteenth Century gave us the Spittoon, though even the use of these began to die out after the Influenza epidemic of 1918, and today it’s merely seen as gross and socially unacceptable. Unless you are a footballer. It’s not the only sport where spitting has been noted- baseball player Frenchy Bordagaray was once suspended for spitting at an umpire, and remarked drily that the punishment was ‘more than I expectorated’. Yet even footballers are now coming under attack for the habit of spitting on the pitch due to the danger of spreading swine flu. The Health Protection Agency in October this year said spitting ‘could increase the risk of passing on infection’ and also claimed ‘Spitting is disgusting at all times. It’s unhygeinic and unhealthy, particularly if you spit close to other people…. Footballers, like the rest of us, wouldn’t spit indoors so they shouldn’t do it on the football pitch.’ Hear hear, I say. poster_spitting

I have tried to be tolerant and culturally aware, but this is one thing I cannot abide. Maybe it’s because I was once spat on in the face during an argument in a restaurant kitchen. To spit in someone’s face is a universal sign of anger, hatred and contempt. For me it was far worse than being slapped. It made things revoltingly personal. I lose my temper approximately every five years or so, and on this occasion I literally saw red- a red hot rage that made me hurl a bucket of garlic mayonnaise followed by another bucket of olives at the spitter. I was then hustled physically through the restaurant, past rows of startled diners, forks raised in mid-air, and hurled like a sack of rubbish onto the plaza with the cry of ‘and don’t come back!’ Let’s hope the same thing happens to this vile habit- hustle it out of the back door and make it perfectly clear it isn’t acceptable, and isn’t going to be making a come-back any time soon.

Lavapies Olympics (2) Free-style pissing

Posted in lavapies olympics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2009 by cockroach1


There used to be a smell I identified with Madrid- a vaguely unpleasant, smothering smell that made me happy. There were many years, after my intial sojourn in the late eighties, when I returned only sporadically to the city, to touch base, and to watch it shape-shifting, coping with change after change. But the smell stayed the same. It was the smell of the underground. As you descended the steps into the mouth of the metro the odour would waft up into your face: a kind of hot drainy smell reminiscent of bad plumbing, heat, and mysterious urban filth. I loved it. As soon as my nostrils filled with this hot, noxious metro-breath, I knew I was back in Madrid.

Now the smell of the metro is gone, there is ventillation and good plumbing, and there are armies of cleaners keeping the place hygeinic. Like the city, the underground has cleaned up its act. Madrid has de-toxed from the inside, undergone a kind of colonic irrigation. But things on the surface are not quite so clean and orderly. There is a new odour in the air, one which you can find on street corners, down little alleyways, next to Municipal flower pots, lamp-posts, in doorways and the stairwells leading down to the metro. I am not talking about the ubiquitous smell of cigarette smoke, I am talking about the smell of pee.

Free-style pissing seems to have become a city sport, so I can absolutely see why it appears in the Lavapies Olympics shortlist. People here- oh all right, men here (you don’t see many women dropping their knickers and squatting) have no problem whipping it out and marking the neighbourhood as their territory. Madrileños are known as ‘gatos’ (cats) so I suppose they are only behaving true to form, like stinky, strutting tomcats. Next time some pisshead who has come down to Lavapies from his clean, crime-free, safe, tidy middle-class barrio (neighbourhood) and decides to piss outside my front door, I will be very tempted to ask ‘Excuse me young man, would you do that at home?’ I would be tempted to believe that all this street weeing is a symbolic symptom of the locals not having a pot to piss in, but generally it isn’t the locals, whatever nationality. We live here, we don’t piss on our own doorstep.

So free-style pissing got my vote as one of the top sports in the Lavapies Olympics. The Incredible Ponce agrees with me in part, as he has been known to say things like ‘Ah, the smell of Spain- garlic… and sometimes piss. And deep fried food. No hang on, deep fried air, that’s the smell of Spain for me. Deep fried air.’ Like Posh Spice he has no qualms about expressing his distate, but he has a valid excuse, he’s Italian. Incidentally, I was told that after Mrs Beckham’s infamous ‘it smells of garlic here’ gaffe, she found it very difficult to order food in many of the city’s top restaurants. According to rumour, each dish she requested, waiters and waitresses would advise her very politely ‘I’m terribly sorry, Madam, but I don’t think you would like that dish. It is prepared with garlic.’ The charade continued often right through the menu, racked up to ridiculous proportions, so that she couldn’t even order a simple salad or dessert without being warned that it contained garlic.

So there you have it, the smell of new Madrid- for some it’s pee, for others it’s garlic, or fatty fried food. Lavapies, like a Third World enclave, is an oasis of gritty, unadulterated smells. Of course, statistically you are bound to come up with some good pongs as well as bad. Between my house and the plaza, for example, in just half a block, I regularly smell Turkish kebabs from the Kurdish cafe with its service window onto the street, incense from the Egyptian bazaar, Lebanese food and shisha smoke, the heavy sweet cologne of pomaded arabs and Indians, Patchouli oil trailing from some urban hippy, the fresh sharp sting of the desert air with a hint of mountains, traffic fumes, the rich stink of rubbish bins not cleaned out properly, flowers from window-boxes, the occasional overpowering stench of good weed, and of course, fresh and not so fresh pee.

But you are a cripple, Blanche…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2009 by cockroach1


But you are a cripple, Blanche...

For the first time in three weeks, I have picked up my stick (lent to me by MacGuiver from the bar next door) and walked. Out there- outside. Yesterday I had my follow-up x.ray at a medical centre and in the afternoon, another visit to my GP to be signed back on for work, all things being well.

The x ray was a fairly efficient affair. We were sitting in a small bay with plastic seating, at right angles to a corridoor with many doors leading off it into various x-ray and consulting rooms. Along the corridoor hurtled medical staff in a self-important flurry, occasionally calling out names, then barking the order ´this way, please´. By the time I followed my nurse she had disappeared, and I stood peering into open doors, thinking ´yeah, but which way?….´ until she found me. Back in the waiting room I heard ‘Maria Milagros Martinez’ called out, and a woman of about 30 years old came forward. Mary Miracle Martinez. That means she was named in the eighties sometime. I understand older Spaniards having religious names – it was a decree of Franco´s that all babies christened after a certain date must have a religious name, hence the glut of Mary Josephs, Joseph Marys, Jesus, Mary of the snows, of the pains, Pains, Consolation, Immaculate, etc etc. But what were her parents thinking? Mary Miracle Martinez? Sounds like a specialist hooker or a girl who fires herself out of a cannon for a living. Nowhere near as bad, however, as my favourite ghastly name which is Circuncision, shortened to Circun. An old lady’s name originating in Andalucia, apparently, thankfully dying out these days.

Following the x ray I was told I could go home and it would be sent to my GP electronically. I asked for it to be sent that day so as not to waste a visit to my GP that afternoon and was assured it would be done that morning. Knowing in my gut that something in the process would screw up, I hobbled home. At the doctor’s later (by this time with a sore-ish foot due to all the walking) I was told the xray had been sent but in the wrong format and I’d have to go back again the next day. Deep breath….

Today I made a visit to work to sort our paperwork. I went by metro, perfecting my authentic Dr House limp with stick.


''Make your own cup of tea.''

Reactions to the stick are interesting. At the best of times it´s hard enough to get someone to give up their metro seat for you. I was offered a seat twice, once by an older gentleman and then by a young woman. Suddenly there were other walking wounded everywhere. In the carriage with me a young man with a wheelchair, another man at Sol metro station with a zimmer frame, a girl on crutches, in Plaza Lavapies another man resting on a bench with his crutches. As the metro carriage door opened and the wheelchair guy and I tried to leave, the usual press of bodies stopped us leaving before they piled into the carriage, and one bitter old cow tutted loudly at us as we tried to push pur way through and onto the platform. I reacted in true Spanish fashion, snapping at her,

´Well, let us get off first, then!’ Sometimes being half Spanish has its advantages- you are allowed to answer back, to have a damn good whinge when you need to, to push and shove, and you can permit yourself not to apologise when someone else shoulder barges you in the street.

After calling in to work I went to the office where the Ponce pays his rent and sorted that out for him. The doorman to the building rushed out of his little booth as I was leaving- a red-faced balding midget with a huge grin, and asked me how I´d done it, then why didn’t I have a man to do these things for me, then next time I should call him and he’d lift heavy things for me, finishing our short chat with the statement ´God, but you’re gorgeous, you are.’ Thanks very much, but no thanks….

It feels good to be out and about again. It´s as though I have been away in another country, or in a chrysalis, emerging blinking into the light. Over the past few weeks it has become winter. The walk back from the x ray yesterday morning was glorious. My appointment was at 8.10, and I saw the sun rise pink over the Puerta de Toledo. The streets are quieter, the terraces are almost all brought inside by now and there are even a handful of Christmas decorations up. Winter in Madrid is bitterly cold but exhilerating. It felt good to be back. Enough of this crippled house arrest. I think I might keep the stick though, as an affectation, and as a handy way to get a seat on the metro.

Er, got any food?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2009 by cockroach1

dannyWhen I was working as a tour guide I learnt, on one of my many visits to China, that there is an ancient Chinese greeting which is still in use today in sophisticated and affluent cities such as Shanghai. The greeting is ‘Have you eaten?’ It is a figure of speech and not to be taken as a literal question, but the implication is that of concern for the other person’s state of health and well-being. Spain is a country steeped in tradition, one far more adept at keeping its old customs alive than our culture, where we mostly recoil in excruciating embarassment from such monstrosities as Morris Dancing and cheese rolling. In Spain they are proud of and not the least bit embarassed by tradition. Now it seems Spain is ready to embrace even traditions from other cultures, such as this ancient greeting from China. Of course, the wording has changed slightly but the sentiment is the same. And the greeting now comes from the guest, not from the host. The greeting, updated to our modern times of crisis, is ‘Er, got any food?….’

Turning up at friends’ houses for mid-morning coffee or late night sessions, we can be seen wandering noncholantly into the kitchen like Danny the Dealer from Withnail and I and asking casually ‘Er, got any food?’ Ok, we’re unlikely to be handed a moist saveloy which we then sniff and ask ‘yeah,, all right, how much do you want for it?’ but believe me, in these time of crisis the scenario is not that far off. ‘Got any food?’ is a polite way of saying, between friends ‘ Look, I haven’t eaten for a day or two, I have no money at all and I’m really, really hungry. Hungry enough to ask…’

Currently off sick with the gammy foot and unable to walk, I am relying for food on the Incredible Ponce, who brings me a menu del dia almost every day from the bar/restaurant where he works. This makes me feel like a granny waiting for her meels on wheels, and at the same time like a baby bird cared for and protected by its mother, but the important thing is, I am being fed, and sumptuously, at the moment. Often we eat together – he turns up after work most nights, and like an urban fox, starts scavenging in the fridge and cupboards. Some days have been, shall we say, frugal over the past few weeks, and we have been known to sit like secret bulimics at three in the morning ravenously scoffing bowls of muesli, becasue that’s all there is.

Last Sunday a couple of friends came round to keep an old cripple company, and as we sat and drank coffee I could see them eyeing my fruit bowl. Finally, one of them said wistfully ‘Oh, you’ve got fruit….’ Fruit was quickly distributed. Later, while making me a cup of tea, one of them said ‘Oooh, greek yoghurts, my favourite….’ Greek yoghurts were promptly distributed. It turns out they were waiting for payday and had no food at home. The planned menu du jour was a rice, potato and stock stew. At this point it was time to hand over the saveloy. No friend of mine goes hungry if I can help it. We reached a perfect solution- one of them who is Italian American, raided my cupboards and cooked a great pasta dish for us all. As they left, they asked for a loo roll, so were sent home with 2 loo rolls, a handfull of cigarettes and a full stomach at least. The deal cuts both ways, I am no Lady Bountiful, and only a couple of weeks ago was at their house one Saturday night desperately hungry and asking for food. I was fed American cereals, a great sugar-boost, and on another occasion, sausage brought back from a recent trip to Italy.

Consequently, I am heading a campaign to choose an apt slogan for the Crisis. I think ‘Er, got any food?’ sums it up perfectly. Like Shirley Bassey, I try always to ‘see things from a different angle’ and to me, this is one of the many blessings of this economic shit-storm: a return to good, old fashioned community values like sharing resources, helping out friends in need, and cutting through the bullshit that everything’s fine and dandy. Far more healthy to admit we’re all screwed and we’re all in this together.

Lavapies Olympics (1) bag-snatching relay

Posted in lavapies olympics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2009 by cockroach1


I have been fortunate enough never to have been a victim of this, the first of the Olympic sports of Lavapies, though I hear that a sporting handbag relay is a frequent sight in the neighbourhood. There is always something picaresque happening in and around the plaza, so it pays to have your eyes peeled and your ears pricked at all times.

When I say I have never had my bag snatched in Lavapies, this doesn’t mean that I have never been robbed or mugged in Madrid. In fact, if you’re not robbed in your first few months here then you can’t truly consider yourself ‘in’. It’s like a brusque frat-boy initiation rite.

Once, on the tube at rush hour on the way to work. 4 euros in my purse, choke on it, gypsy scum! Once, in the stairwell of a seedy hostal in Tirso de Molina in the late eighties. After stepping over junkies in the doorway, we were followed by a charicature of a scrawny gypsy Rose Lee, clutching at me and moaning ‘money, alms for the poor, help me, for the love of God, help me…’ while her other hand filtched the purse from my pocket. Once in the Retiro, sat on a bench with my boyfriend, just collected tickets and travellers’ cheques for our trip to the UK. A well-dressed arab apporached with an unwieldy map and asked for directions. My bag was on the bench beside me, the handle looped round my knee, until we were momentarily distracted. Once, a year ago, at the cashpoint in Tirso de Molina- jostled by two teenage Romanian chav girls who never even flinched when I unleashed my inner Amazon- ‘You will not touch me again, whore bitch!’ shove, ‘if you touch me again I will break your face!’ They robbed me of 300 euros right under my nose and I didn’t see them take the money. Once, a couple of years ago, in a shoe shop in Calle Mayor just off Sol, an area with the highest number of thieves per head in Europe. I put my bag down to try on a shoe and the fucking Borrowers made off with it invisibly. In the blink of an eye, you could say. Once at a street café in Serrano, bag on the floor by my feet, hassled-looking man approaching asking which way to the bus-stop.

Well, I could go on but it would be so dull. You see, from where I’m sitting, I’m far more likely to be mugged outside the neighbourhood than in it. I have never been threatened, pick-pocketed or even followed near my house. They always say you are safest in the thick of it, honour among thieves and so on. Madrid can be a mean city, let’s face it, it’s a European capital. But I am from Nottingham, you can’t scare me. I’ve wrestled with fat slags at closing time in dank victorian alleyways, I’ve held my own in chip shop queue brawls, I’ve repelled hordes of feral children unarmed and alone. And I think you can see this in the way I walk the streets. Nottingham girls are made of tough stuff, pride of the Midlands, we’re bred on pork pies and cross-country runs. I can hold my own in a changing room cat-fight, I went to an all-girls public school, what do you expect? I have respect in the Hood. Nobody’s going to be snatching my bag in Lavapies any time soon.